BOSTON — Matt Garza flirted with going where no Ray has ever gone, showing such dazzling and dominating stuff that by the fourth inning Sunday afternoon manager Joe Maddon began to calculate how he'd balance what he considered the very real possibility of a no-hitter vs. a rising pitch count.
That Garza ended up allowing a hit in the fifth, and three more over his sizzling eight innings, was the only disappointment on the cold and wet Fenway grounds as the Rays beat Boston again, 7-1, and extended a franchise-record start that has taken them places they've never been: a baseball-best matching 9-3 overall record, a perfect 6-0 mark on the road, a five-game margin over the rival Red Sox.
"This is what we worked all spring for —we kept pounding and pounding and pounding and here it is and we're doing it," B.J. Upton said. "We've done exactly what we've wanted to do."
It has been, truly, a team effort as the Rays have pitched, hit, run and played defense for the most part as well as they'd hoped and planned, with Sunday the latest demonstration: Garza starred, Upton and Carlos Peña hit mammoth home runs, they stole three bases and hustled all over the field and made the usual handful of highlight-reel plays.
To do it where they have — it's the first time they've ever beaten the Sox in three consecutive games in one series at Fenway — and in the conditions they have has made it even better.
"We're playing on the road. Here. We're playing well. And the weather's been horrid," Maddon said. "That's all good stuff.
"And that just speaks to focus and intensity. There's no excuse-making. Guys get ready to play and we're playing. It doesn't matter what the conditions are, or where we are. And I love that about our guys right now."
Garza has been a huge part of it, improving to 3-0 with an AL-leading 0.75 ERA in showing what the Rays insist he's capable of on a regular basis.
"If he keeps this up, I think he's going to win the Cy Young," Upton said. "He's been unbelievable. Never looked flustered, never got out of control, kept his composure."
"He's done that several times this year," Maddon said.
Over breakfast in the clubhouse early Sunday, Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey had visions of Garza throwing a no-hitter, spurred by Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez's Saturday masterpiece and resulting discussion that the Rays, Mets and Padres were the only teams without one.
"I actually said, 'You may see another one today,' " Hickey recalled.
Garza made a game bid, retiring the first nine then wiping away the fourth-inning leadoff walk to Marco Scutaro with the first of three double-play grounders he induced, all while relying primarily on his fastball since he didn't have much of a slider or curve.
He had two outs in the fifth —and his manager "laboring mentally" about many pitches he'd be allowed to throw (and not deciding before it became moot) — when Adrian Beltre got the first hit, a liner off the Green Monster, though he, too, was erased on a strong throw from Carl Crawford. Even in allowing two more singles, Garza through seven innings faced only the minimum 21 batters and only 26 over eight, throwing 115 pitches as he improved to 8-2, 2.71 against the Sox.
The clichéd phrase "no-hit stuff" was very much applicable. "Absolutely," Hickey said. "You could just close your eyes and imagine him getting through Beltre in that fifth inning and you just never know."
Garza, 26, said he was very much aware of the possibility but insisted he wasn't disappointed by the missed opportunity.
"I knew exactly what was going on, I was facing three hitters an inning," he said. "That's a great thing to try for and to go get, but to get the W is even better."
For the Rays, that has been pretty much the story as they head into today's 11 a.m. series finale looking for a staggering sweep of the struggling Sox, who are off to their worst start in 15 years.
"We've got three so far, there's no reason to stop now," Upton said. "We might as well go for the fourth."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]